One of the reasons I became a historian is because I am fascinated by the variety of human ability and experience. Humans are capable of creating the most extraordinary things: the pyramids of Egypt, the dome of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, the laptop computer, the furnaces of Auschwitz, Stonehenge, the Slinky. Some sacrifice themselves and others to their gods; some deny the existence of anything they cannot see. Some put themselves confidently at the absolute center of the universe; some believe that the universe is random and chaotic and that they are only a momentary speck in its grander existence (which may itself only be a momentary speck in something even more incomprehensibly large). Sometimes they know, in all certainty, that the world is a place of progress and reason and reward for those who work hard. Or they know, with equal certainty, that the world is permeated by dangerous spirits, who must be pacified by the proper rituals. Some deeply respect the power and beauty and fragility of the earth on which they live; some know that they are its masters and that it is meant to be shaped and made productive in their service. Some celebrate the accomplishments of the individual; some work hardest in the interest of the community. At times, they work together in bursts of energy to build cities or explore beyond what they know or rescue those in danger; at times they work together to viciously exterminate people who used to be neighbors and have somehow come to be perceived as enemies.
I try to share this with my students, and I tell them, Look. History shows us some of these possibilities. There is more than one way to believe. There is more than one way to organize your government. There is more than one way to understand who is your family, to evaluate crime and impose punishment, to produce food, to create law, to treat others who look different, to impose social conformity, to marry, to use the resources of the earth. None of these is perfect, but you need to understand the nearly infinite possibilities of what humans do, and then use these to understand better your own choices, for they are choices, and they both reflect and perpetuate who we are along this long spectrum of human possibility.
Usually this variety fascinates me, but lately it has become overwhelming, because so many contradictions exist within my own society. In recent decades we have made so much progress in civil rights and equality for minorities and women, but black men are dragged to death behind trucks, and white supremacist organizations are growing. We fiercely defend the rights guaranteed by our constitution, while we defend our right to deny those rights to others, as we perpetuate torture and humiliation. We have created a society of more prosperity and freedom than nearly anything the world has yet seen, yet we are creating a growing gulf between a small, powerful, wealthy elite and an underpaid, uninsured, poorly nourished populace. We have exponentially broadened our scientific understanding of the world, but we are poisoning our air and approaching genuine crises in our reckless consumption of petroleum and water. And so on.
All this came to my head because this morning I read Jimbo’s post about our impending doom here, and then Psycho Kitty’s about compassion and acceptance here, and I’m still thinking about the beauty of Jo(e)’s posts about her monastery. The variety of human experience is echoed in the variety of things we write about, even in this relatively small circle of bloggers. I am touched by our deep capacity for simplicity and respect and compassion, and horrified by our tendency toward hubris and ignorance and greed. This echoes the confusion I feel about modern Americans, and modern humans: are we great inventors, liberators of the oppressed, believers in freedom and opportunity, creators of possibility, curers of disease, rescuers who help others in times of crisis? Are we oppressors of others, manipulators of the weak, destroyers of the planet, heartless towards the helpless, disdainful of our poor?
I believe we are all of these things, but it’s hard to fit them all in my head at the same time, and I don’t know whether to celebrate or despair. Most days I do a little of both.